Malaysia: This Is Only The Beginning

Farish A. Noor

Posted Sep 17, 2008      •Permalink      • Printer-Friendly Version
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Malaysia: This Is Only The Beginning

By Farish A Noor


Recently I found myself in an open discussion with some of my students in the university I am based at in Indonesia. At the tender age of 18, this first-year student demonstrated both the intellectual acumen and political commitment I have come to expect from those twice his age, yet he was just one of the many students whom I am proud to say have come under my care and tutelage. After ten years of teaching experience, I have come to the simple conclusion that my Indonesian students are by far the smartest, gutsiest, most honest and dedicated compared to the students I have taught in Malaysia, Singapore, Germany, France and Holland. Why?


That an 18 year old can begin his university life equipped with enough political knowledge and commitment is a testimony to the success of a primary and secondary educational system that got it right. This boy is the product of the post-Suharto educational system of Indonesia, and living proof that the reformasi (reform) movement of the 1990s in Indonesia has succeeded.


Yet the success of reformasi in Indonesia depended upon the quiet dedication of a legion of activist-academics who toiled day and night to dismantle the hegemonic structures of power and knowledge that were developed and consolidated during the three decades of Suharto’s rule. This meant that they had to confront not only the hegemony of the old regime, but also replace much of the human and ideological resources that had been put in place between 1970 to 1998. Ten years later, the results are only beginning to show and it has proven to be a worthwhile endeavor after all.


Malaysia today is at a similar crossroads where Indonesia was a decade ago. With the febrile grip of the Badawi government growing weaker by the day, there is much speculation that Malaysia’s former Deputy Prime Minister and now de facto leader of the opposition, Anwar Ibrahim, is poised to take over the reins of power. It is widely speculated that Anwar now has more than forty members of Parliament who are prepared to leave the ruling UMNO party and join his People’s Alliance to take over from the unpopular and discredited government of Badawi. Anwar has written to Badawi and called for a dialogue between the two to discuss a peaceful transition of power: something that has never happened in the course of Malaysia’s 51-year history.


Should such a transition happen, however, it would only mark the beginning of what must be a long and difficult process of reform and reconstruction. Like Indonesia, Malaysia has lived under half a century of hegemonic rule by one party – UMNO – and the ruling coalition it leads. Five decades of UMNO rule translates into five decades of pro-UMNO propaganda that has been normalised as news in the press, official history in school textbooks, official discourse in the workings of the state. This also means that the entire apparatus of the state – from the police and the armed forces to the bureaucracy, educational institutions, economic sector, etc. - have all been stamped with the lingering imprint of UMNO and UMNO’s brand of racialised ethno-nationalist politics.


Taking over the government of Malaysia is just the first step to reforming the country. What many Malaysians do not perhaps realise is how difficult and long the process of reconstruction will take. For instance, the task of re-writing the country’s official history, that has so long borne the bias and slant of UMNO’s ideologues, will be a herculean task in itself. Malaysia’s communally fragmented society will demand representation on all levels in the new curriculum of the national educational system. The Muslims, for instance, may insist on a re-writing of Malaysian history primarily from their Islamist perspective. Other ethnic and cultural minorities may likewise call for an equally sectarian interpretation of history as well. And even if such a comprehensive history could be written, would a new government have the will to see to it that it is taught in schools? Decades of UMNO hegemony has also ensured that a pro-UMNO bias remains in many institutions of the state and to some extent the official ideology of UMNO has been internalised by many members of the bureaucracy. One can anticipate many rounds of furious polemics, protests and counter-protests, and not to mention countless efforts to sabotage the reform process in Malaysia before it even gets off the ground.


Compared to the long road ahead and the obstacles that are bound to be put up in the face of reform, winning power and taking over the government will seem a relatively easy task. Much more difficult will be having to dismantle the structures of power and knowledge that have grown sedimented for so long, and overturning the dominant culture of racialised politics that has divided Malaysian society thus far.


What is required therefore is a spirit of universal citizenship and a commitment to a non-racialised and non-communitarian Malaysia: a task that the present opposition alliance itself is not perhaps ready to take on considering its own communalist make-up, divided as it is between communitarian Islamists and left-leaning democrats. The first and enduring task therefore has to be the inculcation of the value of universal citizenship and civic commitment to Malaysia. Until today Malaysians see themselves as members of the Malay, Chinese or Indian races first, or place their religious identity before citizenship. Yet the creation of a democratic and equal Malaysia relies on that intangible quality known as Malaysian citizenship, a quality that is hard to quantify or define but crucial nonetheless for nation-building. Are there enough of such Malaysian-minded Malaysians who can build a new non-racialised non-sectarian Malaysia? Time alone will tell, but for now the prospect of an unprecedented change of government is the first of many long and difficult steps that has to be taken in the slow birth of a reformed Malaysia.




Dr Farish A Noor is affiliated professor at Universitas Muhamadiyah Solo, Surakarta, Indonesia.